In the town of Rugby, a failed utopia in the Cumberland Plateau.
As I had done with a number of destinations in Central Europe, I have a list of towns within day-tripping reach to be visited for an occasion when a “special offer” is on, like a festival or a Christmas market. Last November a holiday market in Rugby, Tennessee graced my news feed. Hot damn! Something to do!
Here’s the Rugby story in a nutshell. In the late 19th century a British novelist who espoused the ideals of Christian socialism (equality and cooperation), Thomas Hughes envisioned Rugby as a utopia for England’s “second sons;” a place where wealthy second-in-line sons who would otherwise inherit nothing could live as gentlemen farmers and enjoy the lifestyle to which they had become accustomed.
Hughes convinced enough colonists to drink the kool-aid that 1880’s Rugby became a thriving metropolis. Nearly 400 people lived in the town in its heyday, each investing $5 in the commissary to guarantee equal ownership. In total, between 65 and 70 Victorian buildings formed the town. Its Inn became the social center and attracted wealthy tourists to this middle-of-nowhere (7 miles from the nearest train station) destination. Badminton and equestrian clubs were formed and tennis courts were added. A library was built (the first lending library of the South), along with a school and a church. Major publications like the Gray Lady and Harpers Bazaar predicted a mass exodus of English second and third sons to settle in Tennessee.
Personal freedoms were guaranteed, but alcohol was prohibited. Pro tip, Mr. Hughes: any planned utopia requires Happy Hour.
For whatever reason, Hughes’ family refused to move across the pond to be with him. Probably the lack of Happy Hour. Thomas brought his mother instead, and spent the years traveling between back and forth across the pond.
But Rugby as envisioned was not to last. First came the Typhoid. Then the magnificent Inn burned to the ground. Land disputes mired colonists in debt. Beyond that, it seems the second sons were not quite cut out for farming, either; the soil of the Cumberland plateau did not lend itself well to growing much of anything. The cannery failed (the soil was not conducive to tomatoes); the dairy business failed; and even brick-making efforts failed. The final straw for this paradise, however was the passing of Hughes’ mother in 1887, a prominent figure on the Rugby social scene. Many colonists decided the fun was over, and either returned to England or moved elsewhere in the United States.
Thomas Hughes himself left, never to return.
The experiment had failed. Most of the beautiful Victorian structures fell into ruin, though enough families remained for the town to continue into the 20th century. In the 1970s a group of preservationists were able to have Rugby placed on the National Register of Historic Places. The town is now considerably smaller in population, at 75; and with just a handful of original structures.
If I were limited to a one-word description of Rugby, that word would be “eclectic.” The town is a living museum, though its residents do not dress in period clothing. The young man at the Visitor Center exuded the style of enthusiasm reserved for Wes Anderson movies, especially when describing the 20-minute movie (!) about the town.
In the Visitor Center a lovely Christmas village had been setup, as well. I love Christmas villages but would never want one in my own home.
Outside, the market was small but no matter. Because, we had something to do!
The city girl in me loved the “wildlife.” I have never before seen an Angora Bunny, much less a supermodel bunny.
Fascinating. Bun-bun’s owner was literally pulling angora fibers from a second bunny next to her and weaving them into skeins of angora yarn. Knitting is up there with quilting and philately for me; all three activities seem incredibly fulfilling, just not enough so to inspire me to begin.
Rugby is adorable. That’s really all there is to write.
You know our modus operandi on these outings. An epicurean activity follows the cultural. Tragically, Rugby’s sole restaurant closed in early autumn due to an accidental electrical fire that nearly wiped out the structure; renovation work was well underway on our visit, thankfully.
Not to worry, though. R.M. Brooks to the rescue! “Just around the curve” as one leaves Rugby is this General Store, also on the NRHP. Be mindful of the Elderlies crossing on your way, of course.
Not only does it offer worms and lizards (tiny salamanders, actually) for fishing, but one can partake of The Best Boloney Sandwich in Tennessee!
You know what we ordered. While waiting for our sandwiches we looked around at the most eclectic (there’s that word again) collection.
Now, about the sandwiches. (Why, yes, my grape soda was a color not found in nature.) Absolutely delicious. If a slab of this baloney had been placed on a sliced Semmel, we would have thought we’d ordered Zwei Leberkäse Semmel.
That was our outing. There is probably considerable wisdom in this failed society for modern times; but I’ll leave that to the experts. We are more interested in the handful of trailheads that begin near the Visitor Center, so a return visit with our four-pawed trekking buddy is in order. (CTF is a huge fan of Leberkäse, too.)